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To Do List: Buckeye Linebackers Coach Billy Davis
By Tony Gerdeman
Jerome Baker provides zero question marks for Billy Davis, but he's one of the few.
Photo by Jim Davidson

The Ohio State defense will enter spring football with around nine scholarship linebackers , yet only three of them will have any starting experience. While Jerome Baker, Chris Worley, and Dante Booker provide a pretty good start, there is still much to find out and build where the rest of the group is concerned.

The Buckeyes will be breaking in a new linebackers coach in Billy Davis, but he's also been around the program for a little while, so he knows what OSU has in his linebacker room. His job during the offseason and spring will be to build a two-deep that can step in seamlessly when called upon. How well he does that will depend on how well he manages his to-do list, which might look something like the one below.

1. Find a middle linebacker.

The first part of this task is finding the three best linebackers on the team and then placing them where they best serve the defense. Common sense would seem that this could be a perfect spot for Dante Booker after missing the vast majority of last season with an injury. Booker could have played later in the season last year, but they held him out to preserve an extra season for him, which means they don't plan on him playing behind Baker this year. At least that's what you would think. If that's not an option, however, then you've got some work ahead of you. Does Billy Davis instead try Chris Worley or Jerome Baker in the middle since they know the defense? Or is it time for a younger player to get the call? And if it's time for a young guy, how many do you go through in order to find the one capable of what is asked of that position? All of these questions are why the easiest answer remains Booker if possible.

2. Find the next Jerome Baker.

Just think about where this defense would have been without Jerome Baker a year ago. He stepped in perfectly when Dante Booker went down, and not only did he keep the standards high, he raised them. He wasn't just a guy who filled in admirably, he was a playmaker. That's why Ohio State needs to find their next Jerome Baker. They need a fourth who can come in wherever he may be needed. There are plenty of candidates, but those with the kind of versatility like Baker would probably have an advantage. Two names who come to mind are rising sophomores Keandre Jones and Malik Harrison, but there's still a long way to go in finding the necessary fits.

3. Figure out where the rest of the 2015 class is.

While Jerome Baker has established himself as a star, he is not the lone third-year linebacker on this team. Justin Hilliard came in with more fanfare, while Nick Conner shined in his very first spring as a true freshman two years ago. Neither, however, has been able to find the proper footing to see the field during the regular season. Both have dealt with injuries, which has made things nearly impossible for them to establish what they can do. Will either of them even be available this spring? If so, Billy Davis will want to see what they are able to do because you can never have enough productive veterans.

4. Get positions and roles set.

Not only does Ohio State need to find one middle linebacker, they need to find three. As well as three Wills and three Sams. Part of the reason to recruit versatility is because it makes it easier to fit pliable pegs into hard-to-describe holes. While you may not know which position Keandre Jones will play, based on his size and athleticism, you know which ones he can play. What about freshman Baron Browning who is already on campus? Where does he fit best? He's the size of a middle linebacker with the speed and athleticism of an elite Sam. And these are just two guys to mention. Is Tuf Borland a Will or a Mike? He is probably both, but things need to be narrowed. In reality, there are likely no linebackers on this roster who can only play one position. This is normally a blessing, but it can also be a time-consuming process to find out where everybody fits best. How well Billy Davis manages this task will determine the possibilities of the next one.

5. Determine if a rotation can happen.

The Buckeyes rotate on the defensive line and at cornerback, so who is to say they wouldn't also like to rotate a bit at linebacker if the talent is there? If five linebackers are good enough to play, then they'll want to get five of them in there. Not only does that help to keep players fresh, but it also makes the transition easier when the starters leave for the NFL. For my money, I think it's going to be difficult to keep Keandre Jones and Malik Harrison sequestered to just special teams and garbage time. The same could be said for Justin Hilliard, who came to Ohio State as a 5-star phenom. And speaking of 5-star phenoms, what about Baron Browning? He's one of those athletes that you don't necessarily expect to have for four years. Can he break into the mix?

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